by Terry Paulson
The First Amendment to our Constitution states clearly, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech….”
Our Founding Fathers embedded this enduring principle in America’s Constitution, but this critical freedom is hard to sustain in our politically correct age. For this important freedom isn’t really free; the cost is to extend the same freedom to those who disagree with you—those who might even offend you while exercising the very freedom you treasure.
The French-born American historian, Jacques Barzun, said, “Political correctness does not legislate tolerance; it only organizes hatred.” Political correctness is the enemy of freedom of speech. What may have begun as a crusade for civility has soured into an argument over what is “offensive” and, even worse, censorship. To label a speaker a bigot or a racist for a comment that offends minimizes true racism. If being offended is enough to squander our freedom of speech, I’m offended by those who are offended. Such censorship offends me.
It’s time we affirm again the childhood wisdom we chanted, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.” After all, even with the most hateful of comments, we are dealing here with bad ideas, not physical blows.
Glenn Beck points to another danger, “Political Correctness doesn’t change us; it shuts us up.” When a self-appointed group of speech vigilantes impose political correctness by forcing their views, people just avoid even bringing up the subject. Instead of encouraging dialogue across a divide, we spend time talking to only those we agree with.
When dissent goes underground, it often has a far greater insidious impact on our society. Hidden problems often become bigger problems. Political correctness was a speed bump put in place to slow down hate speech, but it has been transformed into a cultural dead end that threatens freedom of speech.
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis advised, in his famous Whitney v. California opinion in 1927, “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Yes, answer evil speech with more and better speech.
Charlton Heston warned, “Political correctness is tyranny with manners…tyranny with a happy face.” Censorship is a sign that a culture does not have confidence in its own ability to discern truth. Censorship is also a hallmark of any authoritarian regime.
Treasure our differences; don’t silence them.
America still passes the “public square” test. In America, you have the freedom to stand in a public square and express disagreement with the current government. There are many countries where people are routinely jailed or killed for attempting to speak freely, support opposing political parties, or worship within a minority religion.
Treasure our differences; don’t silence them. I hear statements like, “Can’t we just all get along!” or “Can’t we be united like we were after 9/11?” It’s true that America has history of uniting to confront a common enemy. But what keeps us strong is our commitment to freely allow people to disagree and to speak to influence others.
It is freedom of speech and our free exchange of different ideas that helps provide the course-corrections our country needs as it finds its way into the future. In America, we manage some heavy tensions that require frequent adjustments. These tensions aren’t going away—
Do we need bigger government or empowered individual responsibility?
Does caring require a handout or a hand up?
Do we stand for freedom in fighting tyranny overseas or should we stop being the world’s policeman?
Is war never the answer or sometimes the answer?
Without diversity of opinion, we are robbed of the value of dissent. If a minority opinion is right, the majority is deprived of the right to exchange error for truth. If dissent is proved wrong, the majority is deprived of its deeper understanding and commitment to that truth by having it tested and made even stronger on the anvil of criticism.
I have faith in Americans. I don’t want others who disagree with me to be silenced; I want them to be heard. I trust that right will prevail when freedom of speech reigns.
Benjamin Franklin asserted, “Without Freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of speech.”
Remember to value both your freedom of speech and civility.
Remember to value both your freedom of speech and civility. That I have freedom doesn’t mean it’s wise to exercise it without thoughtful consideration of its impact on others and to my own reputation. Freedom of speech brings with it consequences. It can strain relationships. Will your free speech bring you honor or disgrace? Do you want to impress those who already agree with you, or do you wish to influence those who might be swayed by a more tempered dialogue? Relationships and reputations matter. Exercise your freedom of speech with care and respect.
I end with Voltaire’s bold statement, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Will you work to protect our freedom of speech even when you are offended? Join me in protecting this vital freedom for generations of Americans yet to come.
Terry Paulson, PHD is a psychologist, award-winning professional speaker, author of The Optimism Advantage: 50 Simple Truths to Transform Your Attitudes and Actions into Results, and long-time columnist for the Ventura County Star.
© 2011. Used by permission.